Doolittle Mission Bombs Tokyo

Sixteen American B-25 bombers flew from the carrier USS Hornet in a surprise attack on Tokyo and other Japanese cities. Although no militarily significant damage resulted, the Japanese were made to feel vulnerable, and American morale received a boost after months of enemy successes.

Summary of Event

Soon after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces invaded Burma, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, and the Philippines.In the latter campaign, they captured a number of Americans and perpetrated atrocities against their prisoners. In the United States, it began to seem that the Japanese were unstoppable. Morale was low, and people feared that an attack on the West Coast might be imminent. [kw]Doolittle Mission Bombs Tokyo (Apr. 18, 1942)
[kw]Tokyo, Doolittle Mission Bombs (Apr. 18, 1942)
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];aerial assaults
Tokyo, bombing of
Japan;aerial bombardment
Special Aviation Project Number One
World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];aerial assaults
Tokyo, bombing of
Japan;aerial bombardment
Special Aviation Project Number One
[g]Asia;Apr. 18, 1942: Doolittle Mission Bombs Tokyo[00500]
[g]Japan;Apr. 18, 1942: Doolittle Mission Bombs Tokyo[00500]
[c]World War II;Apr. 18, 1942: Doolittle Mission Bombs Tokyo[00500]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 18, 1942: Doolittle Mission Bombs Tokyo[00500]
Doolittle, Jimmy
Arnold, H. H.
Halsey, William F.
King, Ernest
Roosevelt, Franklin D.
[p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;World War II military leadership[World War 02 military]
Mitscher, Marc A.

Sensing the mood of the people, President Franklin D. Roosevelt urged his military advisers to plan a strike against the Japanese homeland. An air raid on Tokyo, even on a small scale, would help the morale of the country and show the Japanese they were not invulnerable.

H. H. Arnold, the commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces, in consultation with Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Ernest King, concluded that it might be possible to use carrier-based bombers to raid Japan. Arnold selected Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle to lead the raid, which was named Special Aviation Project Number One for secrecy. Doolittle had a reputation as a daredevil flyer; in addition, he was familiar with many different types of aircraft. Consultation with the Navy produced the idea to use the new carrier USS Hornet
Hornet (ship) to bring bombers close enough to the Japanese mainland to permit an attack. It would be necessary to use aircraft capable of carrying significant bomb loads and with sufficient range to travel five hundred miles to Japan and to escape afterward. It was not possible to land large planes on the carrier after the raid, so the raiders would need to land in China.

The North American B-25B Mitchell B-25B Mitchell[B 25b Mitchell] bomber was chosen. This twin-engine plane was fifty-three feet long with a wingspan of sixty-seven feet, and it carried a crew of five. During takeoff, the wingtip would approach within seven feet of the Hornet’s superstructure. Only five hundred feet of taxi room was available, and takeoff was possible only if the carrier steamed full-speed into a strong wind. The planes were to carry only two thousand pounds of bombs and be stripped of all excess weight. This was necessary if they were to hold enough fuel for twenty-four hundred miles of flight. The takeoff weight would be thirty-one thousand pounds. The number of bombers undertaking the mission was limited to sixteen—the most that would fit on the deck of the carrier. B-25’s were too large for the elevators on the carrier and so could not ride below decks.

After the volunteer crews had been selected, the men trained in the special takeoff technique they would need to employ at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. On April 2, 1942, a task force commanded by Captain Marc A. Mitscher of the Hornet sailed from San Francisco. Accompanying the Hornet with its load of B-25’s were seven other ships, and on April 13 they joined another task force of eight ships commanded by Vice Admiral William F. Halsey on his flagship, the carrier USS Enterprise. The plan called for the raid to be launched when the Hornet was about 500 miles from Japan, but on April 18, 1942, still 650 miles from Japan, enemy picket boats were encountered, thus depriving the Americans of the element of surprise. At 8:20 a.m., Doolittle took off, followed by fifteen other planes, one after another, flying at an altitude of only 200 feet to avoid detection and at only 160 miles per hour, to save fuel.

Doolittle reached Tokyo about noon and bombed a factory. He eluded Japanese antiaircraft fire and fighter planes, heading east toward China. Thirteen of the B-25’s bombed Tokyo, while the other three struck Kobe, Nagoya, and Yokohama. Plans called for the planes to land and refuel in Lishui (Chuchow), China, where a radio signal had supposedly been arranged to guide the bombers. In fact, there was no such beacon. Doolittle, unable to find the landing field and out of fuel after 2,250 miles, abandoned his plane and parachuted to earth with his crew at about 9:30 p.m. Aided by friendly Chinese, the men made their way eventually to Chongqing, then the capital of China. The Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek and his wife greeted the men and awarded them military decorations.

Not all the crews had an easy escape. One plane landed in the Soviet Union near Vladivostok, and its crew was held captive for sixteen months. Two planes crashed with injuries to the crew, including three fatalities. Four men died after being captured by the Japanese: three by execution, one by starvation. Four men survived Japanese torture and were liberated at the end of the war. Of the raiders who made their way back to fight again, eleven did not survive to the end of the war.


In Japan, reactions to the raid included outrage and fear. It became necessary to recall forces from the Pacific theater to defend the homeland. Fearing that Midway Midway, Battle of (1942) Island might become a staging area for further attacks, the Japanese launched an offensive that resulted in major losses of ships, aircraft, and pilots for them. This disaster, often seen as a turning point in the war in the Pacific, affected its outcome. In China, Japanese forces unleashed a massacre in revenge against those who they believed had helped the raiders. As many as 250,000 civilians may have perished.

A B-25B Mitchell takes off from the USS Hornet on its way to bomb Japan as part of the Doolittle mission.

(National Archives)

Newspapers in the United States announced the raid immediately and made a hero of Doolittle, who was promoted to brigadier general and received the Medal of Honor. The details of the raid were left vague for a year, with President Roosevelt famously saying that the planes had taken off from “Shangri-La” (an imaginary place in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon). The raid was an admirable example of cooperation between the Army and the Navy and set the tone for further joint operations.

Assessments of the actual damage done in the raid varied widely. Japanese propaganda spoke of thousands of deaths of innocent civilians and targeting of schools and residences. However, at the end of the war, documents were found in Tokyo showing casualties of 50 killed and 252 injured, with 90 buildings damaged or destroyed. Air power would eventually prove decisive in defeating the Japanese. Although the Doolittle raid was largely symbolic, later raids, using larger B-29 bombers launched from island bases, resulted in the near-total destruction of Tokyo and other cities. World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];aerial assaults
Tokyo, bombing of
Japan;aerial bombardment
Special Aviation Project Number One

Further Reading

  • Bradley, James. Flyboys. New York: Little, Brown, 2003. Story of Japanese torture of captured airmen in the Pacific and the massacres of Chinese people in revenge for the Doolittle raid, which is described in one chapter.
  • Doolittle, James H., and Carroll V. Glines. I Could Never Be So Lucky Again. New York: Bantam, 1991. Doolittle’s autobiography, detailing his interactions with top military figures of World War II; memories of the raid and of his men add to the book’s interest, as do the many photographs.
  • Glines, Carroll V. The Doolittle Raid. New York: Orion, 1988. Story of the raid in detail. Lists all the raiders and quotes from their diaries and logs. Exciting reading.
  • Lawson, Ted, with Bob Considine. Thirty Seconds over Tokyo. New York: Random House, 1943. The author, who piloted one of the B-25’s, describes the series of adventures that led him back to the United States by June, 1942. His book became a best seller and was the basis of a motion picture of the same name in 1944.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. Vol. 3. New York: Little, Brown, 1948. Contains a succinct account of the Doolittle mission, emphasizing the contribution of U.S. Naval forces under Admiral Halsey.
  • Nelson, Craig. The First Heroes: The Extraordinary Story of the Doolittle Raid, America’s First World War II Victory. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. Detailed narrative of the Doolittle raid, strengthened by interviews with some of the fliers who survived the raid and the attempts of the Japanese to capture them. All eighty of the raiders are listed by name and shown in photographs. Extensive bibliography.

World War II: Pacific Theater

Bombing of Pearl Harbor

Japan Begins Attacks on Southeast Asia

Japan Invades the Philippines

Battle of Midway

Central Pacific Offensive

Superfortress Bombing of Japan

Okinawa Campaign Meets Stiff Japanese Resistance

Atomic Bombs Destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki